November 20, 2011
I lived near Commercial Drive for nearly seven years since I first moved to Vancouver. I’ve experienced the drive daily and am delighted by the walkability of such a street. The cultural enclaves are perforated by a surplus of organic grocers and through it all there is a general feeling of participation. The narrow width of the street, where friction is created along the corridor, allows for cross-pollination and competition from one side of the street to the other.
Most of all, the width of the street affords a walkability from one side to the other – or a ‘J-walkability’ where pedestrians can walk at ease across the street. The narrow street combined with the active movement of pedestrians is the perhaps the essence of what makes Commercial Drive.
Over the years, cultural forces have taken ownership of the Drive. Various groups such as the left-leaning People’s Co-op Bookstore, the gay-friendly Spartacus Gym, the variety of Italian sports bars and cafes, the Ethiopian restaurants and the parent-friendly cafe Little Nest to name a few have marked out their own aesthetics and practices. These types of businesses are started as a means to earn a profit, but also seek to activate or fulfill the needs of their community.
This is what people might mean when they speak about Commercial Drive as a space for alternative economies. Where, perhaps capital comes after community. It has amazed me for years that the Vancouver real estate market, one of the hottest in North America, has not drastically altered the social-purpose function of the drive. The capacity for such a street to remain so vital to the neighbourhood can only be built on a long standing relationship with the people who live there.
I had the good fortune of going for a walk, led by local resident, comedian, and writer Charles Demers; having grown up in the area, he shared his personal stories, together with his historical knowledge and his interpretation of the urban conditions. Demers brought us to consider what has built such a community-focused urban space and how it will persist.
Through the walk, Demers provided anecdotal considerations of the various shops – including a story about a thief who, rather than being simply turned over to the police, was instead whacked in the head with a block of cheese. Demers related such an act to the self-policing mentality of the community. He also drew a correlation between stubbornly competitive store-owners to a lower and middle economic class neighbourhood.
Demers did mention an attempt in the past where a few businessmen converted multiple buildings on the drive into a high-end residence. Upgrading the drab storefronts into well-dressed facades was imagined to welcome a new grade of residents and shop owners. These soon failed, but the remnants have since diversified the architecture along the drive.
Assuming that the residents of the neighbourhood are the support mechanism for the social presence of these businesses, we could logically conclude that if we were to swap out residents with a different class of people, we would also find an insurgence of new businesses. With the pressing costs of real estate, more and more wealthy immigrants are making their way outside of the downtown core and into neighbourhood such as Commercial Drive. Walking past the coming soon sign for Liberty Wines, this was precisely the concern; a new business like this could signal a change in the quality of the drive. This type of business is well planned behind closed doors by a group of marketing wizards. In this way, there is a nervousness surrounding the loss of Commercial Drive from networks of left-leaning people. Demers conveyed to us a hard question – how long can the middle-class quality of the drive hold out before it’s taken over by new slick branded shops?
Demers also pointed out a very common but peculiar site. On the corner of 1st and Commercial Drive is a new business. It is a single story building, but has ceilings that are at least 20’ tall. The building has newly installed double-paned vertical windows that run the length of the building, and the floors are nice and shiny. Fluorescent lights produce a clean and white light that can be seen from the street. The new sign hangs above the doorway: Money Tree, a cheque cashing business that appears to have spent a pretty penny cleaning up the space. Local people cringe when they see the new space as they walk by. My instant reaction is to think badly of such an enterprise, a big proud building at the most visible corner of the drive, where tens of thousands of Vancouver residents speed by. I imagined the Demers would protest this new business, because of its feeling of cleanliness that might redefine Commercial Drive. Instead, Demers made a comment that struck me about this space. He said that the Money Tree is a good thing for the Drive – not because the US-based company’s website states that:
Moneytree has earned its industry leadership position by working toward its mission of exceeding customers’ expectations, creating a professional work environment and making a positive impact on the communities in which we live and work.
But rather because Money Tree reiterates a lower- and middle-class zone, the neighbourhood is less likely, at least for now, to become gentrified. Since then, I have begun to think of the power of middle-enterprises: enterprises associated with exploitative forms of business that are deemed vacuous, or have a lot of physical impact on the neighbourhood but very little business success.
For example, malls such as Tinseltown on the edge of Chinatown were designed to usher in change in the Downtown Eastside, but many of the units have remained vacant only for lower-overhead businesses or those who directly relate to its residents. This middle-enterprise instead works to reduce the speed of gentrification and come into the neighbourhood as a means of reinforcing urban spaces for a particular type of use or business, making it all the more difficult to ‘flip’ the neighbourhood.Essay by Brian McBay